Maybe Carolina isn’t in the dire straits we’d presumed a few weeks back when they dropped an uncharacteristic three straight games. Maybe their thrilling win over Duke was the spark that brought this team together. Maybe, contrary to what yours truly posited not too long ago
, this year’s Tar Heels are exactly who we thought they would be going into the season.
They sure look that way right now. The Heels are riding a four-game winning streak that could ostensibly extend to six before their final matchup with the Blue Devils on March 3.
After a brutal stretch of three games in five days, Carolina’s load lightened, finding them with only two match-ups last week.
First came Notre Dame, in a rematch of January’s dubious one-point Heels win. That the Irish came into the Smith Center healthier than they had been in weeks meant little, as Carolina simply out-toughed the Irish in a convincing 83-66 victory. Joel Berry once again looked Joel Berry-esque, locating both his handle and his shot, while Theo Pinson continued his late-career renaissance while dropping sixteen points and pulling down ten boards.
And while they could do nothing to stop Notre Dame’s John Mooney, who was perfect from range, the Irish’s usually surefire trio of guards ended the night with an abysmal five-for-thirty-four stat line.
Well rested from an almost an entire week without game action—one that included an additional and celebratory day off of practice at Coach Williams’s orders—the Heels came out with a flash on Saturday night, jumping out to an early nineteen-point lead at the unfortunately named KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. Carolina’s shoulders were relaxed, their game flowed more readily than it has all season, and despite Louisville nibbling into their lead here and there, the Heels were fully in control from wire to wire.
Once again, Theo Pinson was Carolina’s lynchpin and, despite often being overshadowed by Berry and Maye, his impact on this team cannot be overstated enough. The Heels are a different team, a far more dangerous team,
when Theo is on the floor and balling.
Despite finishing with nineteen points, Luke Maye had a shooting night he’d rather forget. But his contributions in other respects were invaluable. Maye’s rebounding, steals, and defensive pressure on Louisville’s Anas Mahmoud made his minutes on the court indispensable.
Don’t tell Roy, but there might be something to those days off.
The Nitty Gritty
Wins against unranked teams don’t do much for a resume, but wins are wins nonetheless, and UNC is putting themselves in a great position for a three-seed come Selection Sunday. Beat Duke at Cameron, and they’re an easy call for a two seed. Get to the ACC tournament final and they could be in the argument for a one seed. Unlikely, sure. But as this season has already proven nationwide, anything can happen.
Carolina’s next two games are at Syracuse and home against Miami. Of course, nothing is guaranteed, but if everything works out as it should, UNC should take a seven-game winning streak into Cameron. Both Duke and Carolina should win their next two games, meaning a second-place finish in the ACC regular season will likely be on the line on March 3.
The Good News
That the Tar Heels are back in the national top ten is great news. Their last loss came three weeks ago, and, for the first time this season, they are operating like a well-oiled machine. They are winning away from home, which is huge in conference play no matter the opponent, and they are hitting shots to close out games. Over the last calendar month, the Heels have connected on over 55 percent of second-half shots.
The Bad News
Despite the huge win against Duke, Carolina’s current winning streak has come against some less-than-stellar opponents. Not counting the Blue Devils, the aggregate conference record of those teams is a paltry 22–35. That said, you can’t pick who you play, and while Carolina is beating the teams they should be beating, I wonder how different the final third of this season would play out if the competition were just a little bit stiffer. And no matter how mediocre Syracuse may be, getting a win in the Carrier Dome is never an easy feat.